★★★ / ★★★★
After her mother passed away, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) takes charge of her father’s farm because he is suffering from late-stage dementia. As it turns out, the land is on the verge of bankruptcy and, after going through some papers, she figures that it can be saved if she and her team—Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), her father’s confidante, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), the horse trainer, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), the caretaker, and Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), the jockey—made enough money from horse-racing. Penny’s knowledge about the business is limited, to say the least, but she is determined to learn and beat the odds.
Written by Mike Rich and directed by Randall Wallace, I did not expect to be moved by “Secretariat” because horse-racing is a sport that does not interest me whatsoever. However, the film finds a way to make it interesting by focusing on the individuals who choose to go after a rarity in the horse-racing business and breaking all sorts of records in the process. The big one involves winning the Triple Crown in which a colt must win first place in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.
It is a picture about dreams with important messages to impart, especially for young adults, regarding great successes and how they are almost always never acquired by simply taking a straight path. Penny being a woman in the racing business in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s provides some cheeky amusement. Despite the discrimination she experiences, not once are we asked to feel bad or sorry for her. I liked that she can hold her own against men with condescending remarks and the fact that she still holds her head up high even when situations seem hopeless. The pluckiness that Lane infuses in her character is effervescent. The best scenes consist of Penny going up against men who are as stubborn as herself. Men are angry when they find they cannot hold her down.
The picture, however, could have used less scenes of her looking glamorously sad when she is by herself and more scenes of how her new unexpected career causes a strain on her relationship with her family. Her husband (Dylan Walsh) feels like she is never home enough. And when she is home, she keeps going on about the Secretariat and the financial troubles of the farm. Meanwhile, her kids are quickly growing up. The material relies too much on superficial images to convey that conflict.
Furthermore, the filmmakers should have shown more interactions between Penny and Secretariat even if they are nondescript. I did not get a full sense that the two share a strong bond, so when Penny gives her horse a look of understanding prior to a big race late in the story, I found it somewhat laughable and corny. If it weren’t for the exquisitely crafted and perfectly placed score, the cheesiness would not have been as well hidden.
Based on a true story, “Secretariat” strikes a balance between grace and intensity. It just needs to be more clear about what makes Penny and Secretariat champions, as partners, despite trophies and public recognition.